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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Day at Home

Days like this are great - a big blank square on the calendar, just home. I'm not talking about do-nothing days: my brain has that manufacturer flaw - no on/off switch. I am in the middle of so many projects, books, magazines, writings, ideas.

Today I've got a tall stack of student essays to go through. By now I can hear their voices when I read their work. Their writing is insightful and interesting, with the occasional amusing textual mishap, like escape goats and an unfinnished draft.

But the home part is that I can put on my scruffiest clothes, sit in my soft-back chair in the room that's most full of light, drink coffee and mint tea all day, break for apples and granola, turn on the space heater when it's chilly and damp like today.

Sometimes I get caught and end up making an unexpected run to the store dressed like a rummage sale. But if I've planned it right, I won't have to leave the house at all. I wouldn't want too many solitary days, but I wouldn't want too little either.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Chickpea Soup and other recipes

I love trying new recipes. I have a giant box of them - I've been clipping them from various sources for years. When I find a new one I stick it in the back. When I need one, I draw from the front. I have hundreds, so I tend to recycle a recipe after I've tried it. Yes, even if it's good. Even if it's really, really good. My friend Amy calls this the life's-too-short-to-make-the-same-dessert-twice philosophy. I think that's great. My other friends, though, are distraught. I'm not sure why - but I'm hoping that posting the high-praise, the wow you MADE this?, the please please please make this again recipes here, it will help my friends overcome, and hey, maybe I'll have some of these deliciosities at their houses.

This is a variation on a recipe from the New York Times. It sounds so simple, and it is, but it's incredibly good, and oh so good for you. (This will be the last time I make that observation.)

Chickpea Vegetable Soup

1 whole clove
1 onion, sliced
1 lb. dried chickpeas, soaked overnight and drained
3 garlic cloves
2 bay leaves
small handful of your favorite herbs (I used oregano because my fellow soup eaters don't like rosemary)
1/3 c. olive oil
1 1/2 T. salt
1 large can whole tomatoes, cut up
a good heap of sliced carrots
2 celery stalks, sliced 1/4"
1/4 t. black pepper

Insert the clove into one of the onion slices. Put in large pot with the drained chickpeas, herbs, garlic, bay leaves, olive oil and salt. Add 5 c. water and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for about an hour, or until chickpeas are tender.

Add tomatoes, carrots and celery, cover loosely and simmer until the vegetables are soft, about 25 min. longer. Season to taste with pepper and serve with Parmesan.

At the Ward Bakery open studio this past weekend, I dropped off a couple pans of bar cookies:

Chocolate Nut Bars

1 3/4 c. flour
3/4 firmly packed brown sugar
3/4 c. cold butter
1 14 oz. can sweetened condensed milk
1 egg
1 tsp. vanilla
2 c. chocolate - chocolate chips or chopped up candy bars (I had some tiny milk chocolate candy bars leftover from Halloween, which make an elegant and special baking ingredient)
2 c. nuts - I used unsalted peanuts, but any chopped nuts would be great.

In medium bowl, combine flour and sugar; cut in butter until crumbly. Gently press onto bottom of 9/13" baking pan. Bake 15 min. In medium bowl, combine milk, egg and vanilla. Spread over prepared crust. Top with chocolate and nuts. Bake at 350 20-25 min. or until bubbly.

This is from the annual Christmas collection published in the Northwestern, a newspaper in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. I made a few changes from the original, submitted by Marjorie Breivogel of Montello.

Almond Shortbread

1 c. sugar
1 c. butter, softened
1 egg, separated
1 tsp. almond extract
2 c. flour
1 T. water
1 c. sliced almonds
1 T. or so coarse sugar, optional

In large bowl, combine sugar, butter, egg yolk and almond extract. Beat at medium speed, scraping bowl often, 1-2 min. Add flour; beat at low speed, scraping bowl often, 2-3 min. Press on bottom of greased 10x15" pan (I used a fork to spread it evenly). In a small bowl, with fork, beat together egg white and water. Brush over dough; sprinkle with almonds and press in slightly. Sprinkle with coarse sugar. Bake 350 for 20-30 min. or until lightly browned.

Both of these recipes say cool before eating. Tragic advice. They are so good warm, even if the roof of your mouth shreds and your eyes tear, it's worth it.

My CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) shares (organic fruits, vegetables and eggs I received each week over the summer and fall) ended with a couple pie pumpkins. This recipe came from ACCION: Helping Millions Help Themselves. My mom brought me the recipe, which features a photo of a lovely woman dispensing cream cheese frosting over a gajillion cupcakes. I've never made cupcakes with a cup of melted butter, and it sounds like they would be doorstops. But they are moist, yet tender, and amazing.

Pumpkin Spice Cupcakes

2 c. flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. coarse salt
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. ginger
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1/4 tsp. allspice
1 c. brown sugar
1 c. sugar
1 c. butter, melted and cooled
4 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 c. pumpkin puree

Cream cheese frosting

8 oz. cream cheese, room temperature
1/2 c. butter, cut into pieces, room temperature
1 c. confectioners' sugar
1 tsp. vanilla

Line cupcake pans with paper liners. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and allspice.
In a large bowl, whisk together sugars, butter and eggs. Add dry ingredients and whisk until smooth. Whisk in pumpkin.
Fill each cupcake liner about halfway. The recipe says makes 18, but I got 20 (and some bowl licking). Bake until tops spring back when touched, about 20-25 min.
To make frosting: beat cream cheese, and gradually add butter. Beat until smooth. Add sugar and vanilla.

Again, it says to cool, but have one warm. I'm telling you. Then share them. That's too much butter to eat by yourself!

Ok, four more. Fresh summer ripe tomatoes are one of the most precious resources on our living earth. Am I right? So when I tell you this recipe is worthy of your summer tomatoes, I don't say that lightly. If you use sickly Florida tomatoes grown in toxic sand by underpaid migrant workers, I will know. And despite what I said above, this is very healthful, especially over whole grain pasta.

Vegetable Pasta Sauce (a recipe namer with no poetic inclination or appreciation for how good this is)

2 c. chopped onion
1 c. chopped carrot
1 c. chopped pepper
4 cloves garlic
1/4 c. olive oil
8 lb. (24 medium) fully ripe tomatoes, peeled, cored and coarsely chopped (about 16 c.)
12-oz. can tomato paste
1 c. red wine
2 tsp. dried basil
1 tsp. dried thyme
1/2 tsp. celery seed
2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. pepper
4 medium zucchini, chopped

Note about the vegetables: the tomatoes and their liquid should be close to these specs, but everything else is open to what you've got on hand. I think I had red, orange, green and purple tomatoes and red, green, orange and yellow, sweet and hot peppers and it was gorgeous. I used fresh herbs, and didn't really measure.

Cook onion, carrot, peppers and garlic in oil in a heavy 6-qt. Dutch oven (I used a big, deep skillet), covered, 5-7 min. Stir occasionally. Add tomatoes, tomato paste, wine, herbs, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat. Simmer, uncovered, 60-75 min. or until thick, stirring occasionally. Add zucchini. Simmer, covered, 5-7 min. more. Freeze leftovers. Makes 7-8 pints.

I took this next dessert to my writing workshop at Mill Creek, and one of the writers remarked that he'd expect it to be on the menu at a fancy restaurant. It's surprising how easy cheesecake is, compared to how well received. This one is a tiny bit more work because of the apples. I think this recipe came from Midwest Living. My grandmother sent me a gift subscription for years.

Apple Strudel Cheesecake

Crust:

1 c. flour
2/3 c. sugar
1/2 c. cold butter
1/4 tsp. vanilla

Filling:

4 c. sliced peeled tart apples
(2) 8-oz. pkg. cream cheese, softened
3/4 c. sugar, divided
2 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 c. chopped walnuts

In a bowl, combine flour and sugar; cut in butter until crumbly. Stir in vanilla. Press onto the bottom of an ungreased springform pan. Bake 350 for 10 min. Cool. Place apples in an ungreased 13x9" baking dish. Cover and bake 375 for 15 min. or until tender; drain and cool. Meanwhile, in large bowl, combine cream cheese, 1/2 c. sugar, eggs and vanilla; mix until light and fluffy. Pour over crust. Toss baked apples with cinnamon and remaining sugar. Arrange apples over cream cheese layer; drizzle with any remaining cinnamon mixture. Spinkle with nuts. Bake 375 for 15 min. Reduce heat to 350; bake 45-50 min. longer or until set. Cool to room temperature. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours.

More almond bars. I tend toward bars if I'm pressed for time - they're so much faster than cookies.

Almond Bars

Crust:

1 1/2 c. flour
3/4 c. confectioner's sugar
1/2 c. butter, softened
1/4 c. shortening

Topping:

1 egg, lightly beaten
1/2 c. sugar
1/2 c. preserves (I used strawberry, but any will work)
1 T. butter, softened
1/2 tsp. vanilla
1 c. sliced almonds

In a mixing bowl, beat flour, sugar, butter and shortening. Pat into the bottom and 1/2" up the sides of an ungreased 13x9" baking pan. Bake at 350 for 15-18 min. or until lightly browned. For topping, beat egg, sugar, preserves, butter and vanilla in a mixing bowl until smooth. Spread over hot crust. Sprinkle with almonds. Bake 350 for 15-20 min.

Next is the first recipe I tried with my leftover Clark Bars and Butterfingers from Halloween. These cookies are so good, I'm at a loss for words. Really. They're that good.

Jumbo Chocolate Chip Cookies

2/3 c. shortening
2/3 c. butter, softened
1 c. sugar
1 c. brown sugar
2 eggs
2 tsp. vanilla
3 1/2 c. flour
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
2 c. chocolate chips or chopped chocolate
1 c. chopped nuts

In a mixing bowl, cream shortening, butter and sugars. Add eggs and vanilla. Combine the flour, baking soda and salt. Add to creamed mixture. Fold in the chocolate and nuts. Chill for at least 1 hr. Drop by 1/4 cupfuls onto greased baking sheets. Bake 375 for 13-15 min. or until golden brown. Cool for 5 min. before removing to a wire rack.

While they're still warm, you know what to do.

A lot of recipes went into the recycling bin, but this handful is worth sharing.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The power of our money

Coca Cola's been in my news stream a couple times lately. One article was about the Grand Canyon. Because 1/3 of the park's waste is single-use plastic water bottles, park officials set up water refilling stations and crafted a policy banning plastic bottles. As renowned environmentalist Bill McKibben points out here, Americans throw away 80 million plastic bottles every day. I've seen this statistic several times, and I can't seem to wrap my head around it. All that petroleum, electricity, water, and land for plastic bottles? Even if we recycle them, we save a fraction of those resources. And how simple to just refill a container with water that comes right into our houses. Not like we are walking miles to the stream or community pump.

So in walk the Grand Canyon park officials with a plan to reduce waste in the park, and bring down costs as well. Not so fast, said Coca Cola, which blocked implementation because they make a lot of money selling their products in the park. Coca Cola donated $13 million to the National Park Service, and the parks didn't want to risk losing a major donor. You can read about it here.

Does that make you angry? I'm livid. The other article was about Coca Cola and other corporations blocking the implementation of new school lunch guidelines. Never mind that obesity will be the costliest epidemic in American history, and that one of three kids born in 2000 will become diabetic, largely due to their consumption of soda and other high calorie, low nutrition foods like pizza and fries. Those are big contracts for these companies, and they are not about to lose them to the "nanny state." You can read about that one here.

Corporations like Coca Cola have a lot of power in this country, but their power sits on a house of cards. If people get so pissed off over their abuse of influence and stop buying it, they will simply wither and die on the vine. I don't want Coke setting environmental policy, or funding my country's elections, or exporting their government subsidized high fructose corn syrup all over the world, or having any influence whatsoever on children's school lunches or the national parks. I would rather pay higher taxes and fully fund the parks and schools than see Coke's outrageous profits fund our public places.

I would rather go thirsty than buy Coke or their water brand Dasani, and luckily my city's water is delicious. I have a metal reusable water bottle that saves me a lot of money. It saves my city money too, because my recycle and garbage bins are that much emptier. It saves health costs for me down the line. Even one soda a day doubles my risk for diabetes. And Diet Coke is no better - aspertame is a dangerous and addictive chemical that, itself, leads to obesity and diabetes by stimulating the hypothalamus.

I can imagine a country where we think about the power of our money, about how it shapes the world we live in. Was that new cell phone made with minerals that fund war in Africa? Was that chocolate bar made with cocoa grown and harvested by enslaved kids? Is that milk inexpensive because the corporation is filling cows with antibiotics and growth hormones? Is the money we spend at WalMart making a few people as rich and powerful as countries, while undermining our local economy and earning power?

We have some good choices. This weekend a historic bakery here in Youngstown is filled with artist studios and all the money the artists earn stays in our community. This isn't just a plug for my artist friends, although I think the world of them, and I think art is one thing that makes Youngstown such a great place to live. But all of our purchases should be mindful. Bank transfer day was a great start. Why should we patronize the megabanks that brought the world economy to its knees and did so much damage to our neighborhoods? Let's empower our money to rebuild our country, by seeing each purchase as an investment in the community we want to live in.

Friday, November 11, 2011

My 11-11-11

It just worked out that way. I have 238 titles on my Netflix queue, and right now I'm alternating documentaries and movies. Two DVDs ago I got partway into The House of Mirth, based on Edith Wharton's novel. Despite the impressive cast (Dan Aykroyd, Anthony LaPaglia, Laura Linney, Eric Stoltz), I found the acting flat and the story too chopped up to follow. And maybe watching the 1% flounder in their own social construct isn't appealing just now. Maybe living without healthcare is staring to make me cranky.
But I digress. Last night I watched the important documentary War Made Easy, and today it's Veterans Day. I want every American to watch this. We are soaked in the rhetoric of war.
I talked to a young veteran yesterday. He said he's between tours of duty and is having trouble readjusting to civilian life. He was talking to me about the statistics of PTSD. I've been reading about the high rates of unemployment and homelessness for vets, as well as the disabilities, disfigurements and suicides, not to mention social struggle.
This young man told me he's going back for two more years. When I expressed sympathy, he corrected me - he wants to go. I said I'd heard from vets that what they loved about the military was a tight community, and a real sense of purpose. That the work was hard, but everyone pulled their weight. He nodded, eyes wide. I asked him if he could imagine living in a country where we channeled the talent of our young like that here - solving hard problems here. He really couldn't.
Isn't that sad?
I can imagine him running his own business - talk about intense - working with a small group of people who have put everything on the line. I could see him working in an E.R. or at a crisis intervention center. Or maybe high rise construction, disaster cleanup, fighting forest fires, something with a little thrill to it. On his day off, he might parachute out of an airplane or hang glide or climb up a rock face. But to put him at the end of a gun in a war that will mean nothing in a decade's time when we're back to being trading partners, that's what doesn't make sense.
We have to know on some level that starting all these wars doesn't make us safer. We tell him, thank you for your sacrifice! Thank you for keeping our country safe, for protecting the American way of life. Freedom isn't free. But even after Saddam Hussein (our one-time ally) and 100,000 Iraqis (90% civilians) are dead, and there were no weapons of mass destruction, and nothing about that was a threat to our country, we still drive around with Support our Troops magnets on our SUVs.
And what about all these young people who go
willingly - I wonder if they have read anything about these places, the history of these conflicts, the political dynamics, the economic realities, anything about our wars since Vietnam. And I wonder if their parents have informed themselves, as well.
Support our troops? What are we really supporting? An obscene abuse of power, and a few corporate war makers. There should be a special ring of hell for those who have gotten into the 1% on the profits of war.
I'm sick of war, and I'm sick of my country telling me we can't afford what's important. Yes, we can.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Kansas City's Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts

I just read a piece in The Atlantic Monthly about the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City. My god, this building designed by Israeli architect Moshe Safdie looks so beautiful, and how enlightened of the Kauffman family, who made their money in pharmaceuticals, to give Kansas City such a gift. Even if, as the Atlantic wryly notes, they did it for publicity reasons, the music inside is real.
But this news comes to me at a strange time. I've been reading student essays about health and medicine. A few brave souls took on the labyrinthine funding questions, so I've been beefing up my understanding of Medicare and Medicaid. Of course, since all American public discourse must fit on a bumper sticker (we need to get it quickly so we can get back to news of Michael Jackson's doctor and Kim Kardashian's divorce), I'm reading lots of simplified accusations about bankrupting our country and throwing granny off a cliff.
The truth is, we'd howl if the government wanted to build a performing arts center in any city. Americans keep voting for candidates who promise to lower taxes, so we're not even protecting teacher pay, let alone creating public spaces for ourselves and future generations.
But the way I see it, lot of the money the Kauffmans made came from taxpayers. Between public workers, Medicare, Medicaid, the military and prisons, the government funds 60% of all health care. What didn't come from taxpayer money came from private insurance companies, funded by employers and individuals. That's us, all of it. And maybe some of the people we read about who had to choose between food and medicine funded it, too.
The Atlantic Monthly piece lists other arts and sports centers funded by AT&T, Sprint, etc. And if these corporations take a break from lobbying Congress and funding candidates to build stuff, I think that's great. And, again, funding the arts is wonderful. I hope to go to KC to see this breathtaking building. But I also think we should be howling, loudly, over the way corporations are making money hand over fist from us - so much more than they need to cover costs - because they can. I'd rather pay higher taxes and have some say in the shaping of my community. It's not just sour grapes - that we don't have a Kauffman's here in Youngstown to sweep us off our feet - it's that private money gets little public say, and has a huge effect on public life.
So thank you Kauffman family, and Andrew Carnegie, and Gates foundation. Sometimes the uber rich make beautiful leaps of faith that government could not imagine. But the dark side is the gutting of the public sector, and money manipulation by the axis of evil: Koch brothers, Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, et al.
Let us shift the balance back toward a rich public discourse, a shaping of the future, and public money working toward a public good. Let's put the public back in public. How's that for a bumper sticker?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Poetry Book Discussion Group

On an unseasonably warm November evening over cups of lemon grass tea, we had an engaging discussion on Phil Metres's Ode to Oil, a poignant, elegant collection with lovely movement through time and place, and an intriguing sexual tension. Kattywompus Press puts together beautiful chapbooks with paper that feels good to the touch, a clean and pleasing layout, and cover design that is at once rich and spare.

We're staying in the Middle East in Dec. with Beirut Again by Allen West, published by Off the Grid Press. I read with this poet in Appleton, Wisconsin, over the summer, and was very moved by his work. He is a wonderful reader as well.

A suggestion was made to add a workshop to our monthly discussions, and I love the idea. We'll meet at 6:00 - bring half a dozen copies of your poem. See you at the Lemon Grove on Tues. 6 Dec.

You can order Beirut Again here: http://offthegridpress.net/purchase-books/